Now onstage together in Sir Peter Hall's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre, these two formidable talents from opposite sides of the Atlantic have more in common than meets the eye. Extensive theatre backgrounds complement their film and television appearances, they have both built their vocal chops doing voice work and narration, and both actors chose to devote their university years to a study of literature. In addition, each has rendered their current roles once before: James Avery as Montague, one of his first L.A. theatre appearances in the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's production of Romeo and Juliet, and Miriam Margolyes as Juliet's nurse in Baz Luhrmann's offbeat 1996 film version of the ubiquitous classic.
Well recognized for his role as Philip Banks on the television series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Avery has extensive Shakespeare credits that include Much Ado About Nothing at the Long Wharf Theatre, Twelfth Night at San José Repertory Company, and Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He also recurs on the series Soul Food and Bull.
Having gotten her start on BBC radio, Margolyes has numerous West End performances to her credit, including roles in Cloud Nine, The Threepenny Opera, The Killing of Sister George, and her one-woman show, Dickens' Women. In 1993, she received a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mrs. Mingott in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. She has previously worked with director Hall in London on Orpheus Descending and She Stoops To Conquer.
These two new friends recently sat down with Back Stage West to discuss the differences between American and English approaches to Shakespeare and talk over some of the finer points of "speaking the speech."
James Avery: The first theatre I ever saw was when I went to London—Wild Oats by John O'Keefe…
Miriam Margolyes: …with Ian McKellen at the West End.
James: …and I loved it. There are some English actors and actresses who just touch me no matter what they do—Judi Dench, Maggie Smith.
Miriam: Well, you're talking about our great ones.
James: But as a student, watching them do that, I became fascinated by technique. Now, American actors I always thought were a little more unpredictable, especially on the stage. There is a strange little off-rhythm they can sometimes do. You can see a play here every night for a week and it will all be so different somehow. With the English, I'm sure, it's different too, but there was just such a precision, a precision that I would love to have been able to incorporate with that emotion. Technique is a fabulous thing that helps you access all of that emotional stuff easily and accountably, all the time. You can access it, rather than relying on feeling.
Miriam: Where I think the American actor is slightly at a disadvantage is in vocal technique. I don't think that words are their friend in the same way that English actors are used to using words, understanding about consonance and how to shade a vowel to show emotional color. I think it's maybe not taught in the American drama schools. The American actor is much more used to being physically relaxed and using their bodies better, and English actors are a little bit unrelaxed, but they're better at vocal technique.
James: I can see that. There's a specificity of language that's required in Shakespeare that most drama students in England deal with—a specificity of language that is somehow not as clear in a lot of American schools. When you're doing plays here, they don't pay that much attention to the word. I mean, they pay attention, but you can fudge, you can cheat, you can slip, you can use this, you can lose that. That whole mumbling, naturalistic, feel-in-the-moment thing has done a disservice to the attention to language. The English language is a beautiful thing, and I don't know if we, as actors, credit it with the value that it has.
Miriam: Well, an American can throw away much better than an English person. When there are throw-away lines, they know how to throw them away. English people don't throw them away so well. But when you're doing Shakespeare, you shouldn't throw away that much.
Speak the Speech
James: Doing Shakespeare certainly makes you a better actor.
Miriam: My word, it shows up what you don't know. It shows up the gaps. That's what we need to know—what we can't do, so that we learn how to do it.
James: I'm able to go into cold readings, and I can pick stuff up off the page, and a lot of that has to do with Shakespeare, where you have to pick things up off the page and pay attention to what's written.
Miriam: For Romeo and Juliet, Peter literally had text classes for the first two weeks. We didn't get off our chairs. We read through it and read through it. For example, a line of mine is, "Will you speak well of him that killed your cousin?"—when I'm talking with Juliet and Tybalt has been murdered, and she's upset only because Romeo is banished. Peter taught me to notice that there are words that begin with the same letter: "will you speak well…" And to use that to push the emotion of the line forward: "that killed your cousin?" I have to punch that out. Those words start with the same letter for a reason. He didn't just plop them down. "Will you speak well of him that killed your cousin?" They're there for a reason, and we have to find them and use them. That helps us to make our character and to give the emotion behind the line. We're not doing what you do in naturalistic productions, which is to do a sort of "Um… oh!" To put little sounds before the line to indicate to the audience, "This is serious," or "This is funny." We're not allowed to do that. We use the words, the sounds in the line.
James: Act on the line. Everything in that line has all the emotional feeling you need to know if you just do the line.
Miriam: The other thing Peter said that I really took in was, "Don't act it, tell it." Now that's an interesting shift for us.
James: I'm not going to act and show you, I'm going to tell you what this is.
Miriam: As long as the audience is given a handle on the story, you don't need emotion moving a lot inside you. It's about presenting to them. So they know what's going on. It's almost a detachment from the naturalistic emotion. And we are used to providing naturalistic emotion. That's what most of our work is in film and television and so on. But in Shakespeare, you are allowed to remove yourself a little. As long as they know what's going on.
James: The challenge is to know all of this intellectually and then release, to marry that intellectual knowledge with the emotional vérité of whatever you're playing.
Reading Is Fundamental
Miriam: I studied English literature in university, and then I went straight into radio. I'm not sure I approve of theatre as a university course. I think theatre's something you do. I mean literature is a subject, theatre is practical.
James: But I think there's room for a practical thing at a university. I think it is a field of study. A lot of us don't have the money or the wherewithal to get into a drama school, so I think a university is the perfect place to touch on that. It's not the be all and end all. When you graduate and come out with a degree in drama, that doesn't mean you're skilled and you're a professional.
And the other thing is—as ethnic actors, once you leave school, you don't get a chance to work or do things that you're trained to do. There's not a lot of "non-traditional" casting. It's hard to work, and even if you're trained in the classics in the university, once you leave university, it's very rare that you can get a role that helps you explore that part of your training, for whatever reason. But what you find in the theatre is that if you're good, no matter what color you are, the audience will buy that—whoever you are. So it's not necessarily the audiences who have a problem, it's those who cast, and sometimes those who produce, who have an issue.
Miriam: With Romeo and Juliet, Peter has wanted to specifically use a variety of backgrounds in the casting of the play. It's been fascinating for me because I've never really worked with a large number of black or Asian actors before. Theatre in England is not particularly multicultural. It's changing, obviously, as the society changes, but it lags behind. But this cast is very mixed, and I think there's been a very generous and open warmth from everybody. I hope I'll get the chance to do this again. This is not my last word on the nurse.
What part would you like to do?
James: I wanted to be Romeo.
Miriam: I know. I'd love to play Juliet on radio.
James: I'd love to play Romeo to your Juliet on the radio.
Miriam: Now there's a thought: senior citizens' Romeo and Juliet. BSW